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Could Building a “Frozen Zoo” Save Endangered Species?

Recently there was a CNN article written by Jason Evens that talked about the usefulness of genetic storage centers in saving endangered species. The article talked about how the University of Georgia’s Regenerative Bioscience Center, in conjunction with Zoo Atlanta, is working to build a”frozen zoo” to save endangered cats such as the Sumatran tiger.

Researchers hope to breed animals like Moby in the "Frozen Zoo" – replacing current endangered-species breeding techniques that researchers say are focused primarily on animals kept in zoos.

Researchers hope to breed animals like Moby in the “Frozen Zoo” – replacing current endangered-species breeding techniques that researchers say are focused primarily on animals kept in zoos.

To do this, skin cells are harvested from a sedated animal during a noninvasive procedure. Specialized reprograming genes are introduced to the skin cells that revert them back to their undifferentiated stem cell state. Then, the stem cells can be re-programed to differentiate into egg and sperm. Harvested cells are stored in liquid nitrogen to preserve the cells at every stage. A huge advantage of this is that an entire population can be stored in just a few boxes. The center has already been successful in creating sperm from pig stem cells and is hopeful to begin to use this technique to preserve big cats. This could prove to be an effective way to increase populations of endangered cats such as the elusive Florida panther.

This advancement could lead to a change in breeding techniques and programs for endangered animals that are hard to breed in captivity. Additionally, it could increase the gene pool, which is often reduced in populations with shrinking numbers of individuals. This is largely due to inbreeding, which becomes more common because it can be difficult for an animal to find a mate from another brood from a different gene pool.

Similar work is also being done in San Diego where they are using this technique to save the endangered Northern white rhinoceros. They work in collaboration with the Scripps Research Institute. By harvesting pluripotent stem cells (stem cells that can differentiate into any tissue in the body), researchers are hoping to save this critically endangered species. They are also hoping to use this advancement to save the Somali wild ass, which there are less than 600 individuals in the wild, and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is one of the only institutions in the world currently involved in a breeding program for this species. Further advances in genetic and stem cell applications may help to prevent these animals from going extinct.

Franklin West, assistant professor of animal and dairy science at the University of Georgia, pull out a storage tank of animal cells. West and another researcher are developing a process to convert skin cell from endangered species into stem cells.

Franklin West, assistant professor of animal and dairy science at the University of Georgia, pulls out a storage tank of animal cells. West and another researcher are developing a process to convert skin cells from endangered species into stem cells.

These genetic repositories could be the last chance for some species, but is it possible to resurrect others that have perished? Somewhat indicative of a Lazarus effect, bringing back extinct animals is possible that if there is viable DNA from those animals. So far, Frozen Zoo, founded in 1972 at San Diego’s Institute for Conservation Research, has taken samples from 1,000 different species from over 10,000 individuals. Many zoos are following this practice around the world, many of which focus on their native species. The Australia Zoo, for instance, cryogenically preserves living cells and genetic material (DNA or RNA) just like the other two programs to preserve native species and rare exotic animals for future breeding programs. Together all of these programs and other frozen zoo programs strive for a common goal: To preserve living cells for the exploration of future breeding programs and scientific research with the hope of rescuing endangered populations from the brink of extinction.

While this is a great advancement and holds a lot of hope for the future, it means absolutely nothing if these recovering populations do not have a home to go to. That is why conservation efforts must increase in tandem with these programs to ensure the successful release into a protected and recovered habitat. We need to make eco-conscious decisions and protect our planet. Support conservation programs and ZooNation.org and together we can change the world!

For the CNN article see – http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/01/us/frozen-zoo-endangered-species-georgia/

Read more about the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s program at – http://www.sandiegozooglobal.org/what_we_do_banking_genetic_resources/frozen_zoo/stem_cells_and_genetic_rescue_of_critically_endangered_species/




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